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Confessions of an idealist democrat


I taught Canadian government for 30 years and over that time the course content traced the growing shift of power from Parliament to the executive branch and increasingly to the position of Prime Minister.

I recall that most of my students paid very little attention to politics and topical political issues. In the years since, the erosion of Canadian democracy has continued at an accelerating rate and far too many Canadians – much like my former students – appear unaware of these developments or, worse still, indifferent to them.

Why, I kept asking myself, is there not more widespread outrage over the excessive power wielded by appointed staff in the Prime Minister’s Office (PMO)?

These staff largely dictate which Conservative MPs are allowed to speak in the House of Commons, when, and what they can say. They have been muzzling federal civil servants, especially scientists, in an effort to restrict the availability of factual information that might contradict (or at least fail to support) positions taken by the government.

Why aren’t we more concerned when omnibus bills and closure motions are increasingly used to make it difficult for the opposition parties to provide adequate scrutiny of government legislation? What about the government’s attempt to muzzle dissent from the broader Canadian community by appearing to threaten – through expanded audits by the CRA – the charitable status of organizations that speak out on matters of public policy in ways that are not supportive of the Conservative position?

Replacing the governing party might seem to be the most direct way to address the downward spiral of Canadian democracy. But experience tells us that while opposition parties often promise greater transparency and accountability, once in power they lose their reforming zeal. They find the concentration of power that they inherit quite convenient, retain it, and build upon it.

There is no better example than the present Conservative administration. The Prime Minister was a founding member of the Reform Party, which came to Ottawa pledging to open up government and to free MPs to represent their constituents. Once gaining power, Stephen Harper has moved relentlessly in the opposite direction. If political parties are unlikely to give up the concentration of power that they inherit upon assuming office, how can we begin to redress the balance – to return some power to Parliament while reining in the shadow government within the PMO?

The answer is both simple and very difficult. What we need is for the Canadian public to demand the necessary changes. But many Canadians are disconnected from their political system. Voting turnout has steadily fallen in recent decades and young people especially are disillusioned with democracy as currently practiced and disinclined to participate.

While public disillusionment is understandable, it is also dangerous. The more people tune out and turn off, the easier it is for those so inclined to bend the rules further and to continue undermining the practice of democracy in Canada. As a result, Canadian democracy is in a downward spiral; it is undermined from within and ignored from without. If we are to reverse this trend, more Canadians need to become active participants in the political process.

Just how do we bring about this revival of public participation?

Having spent my adult life teaching and writing about government, I decided to write a book about my concerns – not a textbook, as with my previous publications, but a short call to action book intended to enrage and then engage Canadians in the battle to revive our democracy. The ensuing process has unfolded as a series of hurdles.

The first hurdle writing Reviving Canadian Democracy turned out to be the easy part. Getting the book published (the second hurdle), was also easily addressed. Deciding to self-publish the book meant upfront costs but also the freedom to set a price for the book that would make it accessible. The ebook version at $3 or less is designed to appeal to that younger generation that has largely tuned out. Hurdle #3, making the public aware of the book, isan ongoing challenge.

The remaining hurdles are the most daunting. Hurdle #4 is whether Canadians will bother to read the book, even if they become aware of it and hurdle #5 is whether those Canadians who do read the book are prepared to invest more heavily in our political system. Whether they are willing to look beyond pocketbook issues to parliamentary principles. Instead of focusing on which party offers promises that are most beneficial for them, the question remains whether Canadians are up to the task of becoming crusaders for democracy.

Are they prepared to demand of the governing party (and the opposition parties as well) a commitment to open government, respectful consideration of alternative points of view, acceptance of evidence over ideology, and a return to our fundamental democratic principles and practices?

With a federal election rapidly approaching, we will soon find out.

Richard Tindal, Ph.D, has been teaching, researching, writing and consulting in the field of government for close to 50 years. He is the author of several text books including A Citizen’s Guide to Government. His latest book,Reviving Canadian Democracy, discusses the challenges facing Canadian democracy, the reforms that need to be introduced, and the ways in which Canadians can become more actively involved in their democracy. It is available from the publisher, FriesenPress, and from most on-line retailers.

Photo: Martin Cathrae. Used under a Creative Commons BY 2.0 licence.